Last weekend I caught the VIFF showing of "Time Is Illmatic" at the Rio in Vancouver. I was not sure exactly what to expect having never attended a VIFF screening before but was excited nevertheless to spend a Friday night expanding my mind rather than emptying my wallet.
The atmosphere was relaxed. Movie-goers formed curving lines to purchase wine and beer in the lobby while others enjoyed Vape-Pens in their seats, the glow from the projection screen tracking the odd cloud of smoke as it slowly swam towards the ceiling of the historic theater like a billowing jellyfish.
As the lights dimmed, One9 and Erik Parker’s documentary about the making of Nas' classic album "Illmatic" opened with a profile of the artist riding in a chauffeured town car on route to a pre-concert sound check. In a contemplative mood, Nas postulates aloud on his remarkable and unlikely road to success in his trademark raspy tone, which is noticeably rougher than usual, as if the rapper was battling a cold on the day of filming. Unfolding from these preliminary scenes is a visually captivating retelling of Nas' journey, his humble origins in the Queensbridge Projects, their inception as an affordable housing alternative for working class citizens and the ingrained societal racial divides which later galvanized it as a predominantly African American neighbourhood. Relying heavily on engrossing and rare archival footage, not only of the rapper but also of New York in both the pre and post crack era, the documentary manages to remain engaging as it details the consequences that both crack and the war on drugs had on Gothamites through the eyes of those who witnessed its evils first hand.
Using Nas' life story as an anchor, the movie explores resonant topics such as poverty, strained race relations, substance abuse, the beleaguered education system and a society seemingly designed to ensure the failure of the underprivileged. However, also explored are the themes of the prevailing and undeniable power of love, the strength of family bonds, the importance of friendship and the meaning of sacrifice. Through out all of this the documentary never moves too far away from its Hip Hop roots and is successful as a whole as a result. Seeing Nas' eyes light up years after the fact as he recalls the KRS-One vs. MC Shan beef over neighbourhood supremacy is just one small glimmer into the power of Hip Hop as a transformative tool and art form.
Perhaps the most personal revelation in the movie comes from the solemn juxtaposition between Nas and his brother Jabari "Jungle" Jones' divergent life paths. While both brother's grew up in identical circumstances, as his father Olu Dara tells it, a deep sadness was engrained in Jungle after witnessing the traumatic murder of close friend "Ill Will" Graham. From that point forward, Nas explains how his career as an artist really took off, as if Ill Will was looking down from heaven orchestrating Nas' success. As Nas became more deeply invested in his music, a passion which both he and Ill Will shared, he subsequently spent less time in the streets, while it appears Jungle continued living life as he was with no creative outlet to lead him to safety.
In the documentary Jabari explains how most people in the above picture are either now dead, in jail or fighting lengthy incarceration. After being played the footage a humble and horrified Nas remarks "That's fucked up" before wondering what they would say about him, another face in that picture of broken dreams, or worse yet, perhaps not in the picture at all.
I found Time Is Illmatic to be well plotted and strongly executed. A number of Hip Hop royalty also make cameos including Q-Tip, Pete Rock and Dj Premier to name a few. I would have appreciated if the movie had delved more into the actual creative process behind the making of the legendary album with as much archival footage as was incorporated during other segments but it certainly does not suffer as a result of what the film makers chose to include. Ultimately, what is conveyed is a story of success that defies the odds and whether you are a hip hop fan or not, there is plenty to digest.